Praying for My Patients
As a doctor, I know there’s a power higher than me. That’s why I pray every day for the people I’m treating.
Fifteen years ago, my husband came home from the daf yomi Talmud lecture he attended every day and proclaimed: “All good doctors go to hell.”
As a holistic doctor —and, I thought, a good one—I was taken aback. “Why would good doctors go to hell?” I asked. Brought up in a secular Jewish home, I had always believed in a rational, scientific world where doctors were treated with a certain respect or even awe. I had only become observant a few months before my marriage to Ethan, who’d been raised in a religious home. I wondered if this belief about doctors was common wisdom among observant Jews.
Seeming to relish my surprise, Ethan eagerly explained, “The good doctors go to hell because they don’t pray for their patients. They believe they’re doing the healing.” He waited for his words to sink in before asking, “And what about you?”
The question has stayed with me ever since. I took his point to heart and decided, after some reflection, to try bringing prayer into my medical practice. It didn’t come naturally. At first, the idea of praying for anyone reminded me of my religious Christian friends, who were always offering to pray for me—which I found vaguely annoying. But then my aunt became ill and slipped into a coma. I remembered seeing my mother-in-law praying for people by name when she lit her Shabbos candles, so I decided to give it a whirl. After six weeks, my aunt recovered.
That convinced me. Ever since, I’ve prayed for my patients every day.
Growing up as a secular Jew, I had never put much stock in the power of spirituality until I took a trip to England in 1989 and stayed with my brother’s wife’s cousin, Aubrey Rose, who introduced me to a family secret: Aubrey and his wife claimed to have communicated repeatedly and reliably with their dead son David through a medium. I was so impressed with this new insight that I vowed to explore the hidden spiritual side of things—in general, and in a Jewish context. I started attending a Conservative egalitarian synagogue and, when that didn’t satisfy (religion ended at the shul door), moved on to an Orthodox one.
Around the same time, my professional life as an M.D. was also shaken up. I was working at a small, not-for-profit clinic that offered alternative services like acupuncture and biofeedback. To fulfill my continuing medical education requirement, I attended a seminar in nutritional medicine at The Omega Center, a former Yiddish summer camp in Rhinebeck, New York, now serving as a retreat for holistic studies. But before settling into my assigned course, I first sat in on classes on qi gong, yoga, and mindfulness. When I returned to the clinic, I began to put my new spiritually informed medical training into practice, eventually leaving that office to open one of my own.
It was also around this time that I, a newly observant Jew, was introduced to and married Ethan.
When Ethan later made his big pronouncement about “good doctors,” I had already been praying for five or six years and practicing holistic medicine for nine or 10—but I hadn’t thought about how the two might fit together. Mixing prayer with medicine can be awkward. It’s one thing to daven privately, but to introduce prayer into the doctor-patient relationship crosses a line, almost like breaching the separation of church and state. What right do I have to speak to a patient about God? What if he is an atheist?
I had read of studies showing that prayer promotes healing, but it wasn’t until my aunt’s miraculous recovery that I began to consider prayer on a more personal level. Something shifted inside me. I had moved from being someone who felt uncomfortable praying for anyone to someone who felt a desire, even an obligation, to put in a good word for those who suffered. As I sat at my kitchen table each morning, I would add the names of ailing people to my prayers. I started with my parents and elderly relatives, then added the names of people I’d heard about in the community, and finally, tacked on “and all my patients,” at the end of the list. I was determined not to be one of those “good doctors” who didn’t pray for her patients.
The first time I prayed for a specific patient was when a woman with ovarian cancer gave me her Hebrew name and asked me to pray for her. I added her name to my list. Later, when another Jewish patient was diagnosed with uterine cancer, it seemed appropriate that I inquire after her Hebrew name. Although not religious, she readily told me her name, Nechama, but she had to email me later with her mother’s name, which she gave as Laura. In both these cases, I was not actively treating the patients for their life-threatening condition; as a holistic physician, the conditions my patients see me to treat are rarely life-threatening.
Over the years, I’ve noticed that praying draws me closer to God, and it also brings me closer to my patients. If I prayed for a patient in the morning and she walks in during the afternoon, I feel a special connection, like seeing a long lost friend. I think this works both ways, like the patient who regularly calls me and begins by saying, “Hey, Doc, it’s me, Miriam bas Esther.” She knows I’m praying for her.
A Jewish deli favorite endures in a Mexican-American neighborhood that was once L.A.’s Lower East Side